Muckraker: Grist on Politics

With gas prices now averaging a record $4.04 a gallon in the United States, the Senate voted on two bills Tuesday that would have revoked tax breaks for Big Oil and extended tax credits to renewable energy. Proponents of the two measures touted them as vital for consumer relief and transition to new energy sources, but both measures failed to muster the 60 votes needed to proceed.

The first vote, on the Consumer First Energy Act, fell short of cloture by a vote of 51-43. The second, on the Renewable Energy and Job Creation Act of 2008, failed by a vote of 50-44. Both votes fell largely along party lines.

The Consumer First Energy Act

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The Consumer First Energy Act would have levied a 25 percent tax on “windfall profits” of major oil companies, the proceeds of which would be invested in the Energy Independence and Security Act Trust Fund. Companies could avoid the tax by investing in renewable energy.

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“It will force the oil companies to do something to help us get out of this mess instead of just profiting from it,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on the floor shortly before the vote.

The bill would also repeal tax breaks for major oil and gas companies, estimated at a value of $17 billion over the next 10 years, and suspend filling of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve through the end of 2008. There were measures to discourage “price gouging” and limit speculation in oil markets. The bill would also call for a NOPEC policy (clever acronym alert: “No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels”). This would crack down on the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) by amending anti-trust laws and allowing the U.S. Attorney General to take legal action against countries and companies. Currently, a court ruling from 1979 gives OPEC members immunity in U.S. courts.

Republican leaders spoke on the floor in favor of expanding domestic oil drilling in places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a solution to gas-price woes rather than measures to move toward renewable energy sources. “This bill isn’t a serious response to high gas prices. It’s just a gimmick,” said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “Republicans are determined to lower gas prices the only way we can: increasing supply.”

But proponents of the bill were adamant that the only way to bring down the costs of oil in the long term is to curb the country’s dependence on the fossil fuel. “We are in an oil crisis, and we better start taking action to get out of this mess,” said Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). “Feeding that addiction by tapping another vein just drills us into a deeper hole.”

Democratic leaders pointed out that Republicans wanted to talk about gas prices last week, when a climate change bill was on the floor, but when a bill addressing the underlying causes of high gas prices came up, Republicans refused to let it proceed.

“Last week they wanted to make global warming legislation about gas prices,” said Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “When they have the chance to vote on it, they walk away.”

Six Republicans — Norm Coleman (Minn.), Susan Collins (Maine), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Gordon Smith (Ore.), Olympia Snowe (Maine), and John Warner (Va.) — voted in favor of moving to debate on the proposed legislation. Democrat Mary Landrieu (La.) voted against it (as did Reid, but his was a procedural move to ensure that he can bring the bill to the floor again in the future).


The Renewable Energy and Job Creation Act

The second bill, the Renewable Energy and Job Creation Act of 2008, was the Senate partner to the tax-extenders legislation that passed in the House last month. The $54 billion package would have extended tax breaks for renewable energy that are set to expire at the end of this year. It includes a six-year extension of the investment tax credit for solar energy; a three-year extension of the production tax credit for biomass, geothermal, hydropower, landfill gas, and solid waste; and a one-year extension of the production tax credit for wind energy. The bill also has incentives for the production of renewable fuels such as biodiesel and cellulosic biofuels, incentives for companies that produce energy-efficient products, and incentives to improve efficiency in commercial and residential buildings. Funding for the tax credits would come from closing loopholes for hedge-fund managers and multinational corporations.

Republicans Smith, Snowe, and Bob Corker (Tenn.) voted in favor of cloture on the bill, as did all of the Democrats present for the vote.

The tax-break extensions have stalled in the Senate several times before, and folks in the renewables industry are starting to get nervous as we near the expiration of those credits at the end of this year.

“More than ever, with record energy prices, record unemployment, and grave concerns about global warming, Congress needs to work out differences so we can stabilize energy costs for consumers and businesses, improve our nation’s energy security, and create tens of thousands of quality, green-collar jobs,” said Solar Energy Industries Association President Rhone Resch following the vote.

Green groups rushed to chastise GOP leaders for the obstruction. “By once again blocking efforts to extend these crucial clean energy tax incentives that are in danger of expiring, this minority is responsible for kicking the economy while it’s down,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope in a written statement. “Jobs are already being lost in the renewable-energy industry and at least 100,000 more could disappear unless Congress acts to immediately renew these tax incentives.”

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